Syria and Islamist groups guilty of war crimes, YPG cleared: UN report

UN officials in Syria

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released its findings on humanitarian law violations in Syria from 21 July, 2016 until 28 February this year.

The report, released Tuesday, mainly highlighted three actors – the Syrian government and its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its main component the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The latter merged with other Islamic fundamentalist groups into Hay’et Tahrir al Sham on 28 February this year as a response to rival (but formerly allied) Salafist armed groups participating in the Astana talks and deciding to join Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The report documented, amongst many other incidents, that the Syrian government used lethal chlorine gas on multiple occasions and bombed a spring (Wadi Barada) outside Damascus in December, cutting off the water supply for 5.5 million people living in and around the city.

The report, accusing the Syrian government of war crimes, was welcomed by the United States, which in a statement said “no side has caused more death and suffering than the Syrian government”.

Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Hussam Eddin Ala, said claims of chlorine gas use were “unrealistic, void and lack concrete evidence”. The ambassador rejected accusations of attacking civilians and facilities intentionally and said the report had been compiled with the intention to distort Syria’s image depending on inaccurate and politicising facts as well as information provided by foreign intelligence hostile to Syria.

“We feel no surprise that the Commission has heard nothing about the Turkish attacks against people of al-Bab city in Aleppo or the Turkish air bombardment which caused dozens of causalities,” Ala added.

The report did briefly mention arbitrary arrests by Turkey-backed FSA troops after the capture of Jarablus and indiscriminate shelling in the village of Tel Btal near al-Bab by FSA that struck the middle of a makeshift camp for internally displaced persons, killing three young men.

The report did not specify which “armed groups” were behind disappearances, torture, and indiscriminate attacks, the killing and maiming of civilians, including many children in government-controlled areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Dara’a governorates. The groups are likely to be ones now within Ahrar al-Sham or Hay’et Tahrir al Sham.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (now Hay’et Tahrir al Sham), amongst other crimes, carried out summary executions including the stoning of women accused of extramarital relations, the report said.

Contrary to an Amnesty International report from last year, the UN document found temporary displacements carried out by the SDF or YPG in northern Syria a military necessity as “the presence of concealed bombs laid by [IS] justifies ordering the temporary displacement of civilians.”

The report also denied allegations of ethnic cleansing made by Turkey against the YPG and other Kurdish organisations.

“Though allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ continued to be received during the period under review, the Commission found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity, nor that YPG cantonal authorities systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control through the commission of violations directed against any particular ethnic group,” the report stated.

However it did note that the YPG forcibly conscripts men and boys for military service.

Commenting on the report, YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil said, “The safety of civilians in regions liberated from Daesh [ISIS] gangs is a humanitarian and national responsibility for the YPG and SDF forces. This task is also based on the philosophy of creating a safe country and a free society.”

The report also stated that a US airstrike, as part of the International Coalition countering the Islamic State group, had killed up to 13 civilians in Taltana village, Aleppo Governorate on 4 October. Other airstrikes also led to civilians casualties and the destruction of infrastructure.

The UN made several recommendations to warring sides, including allowing access to humanitarian aid, the right to return of those displaced and investigations into conduct of armed groups.

Syrian government officials and representatives of the opposition are currently meeting in Astana to further talks for a political solution to the crisis. Representatives of the Kurdish-led autonomous region (Rojava) in northern Syria have been excluded from talks so far, due to Turkish pressure.